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Mason and Dixon.

"Is he still alive?" asked an academic colleague of mine, referring to Thomas Pynchon. To be out of sight, off the literary, talk shows and book-review pages, is to be Thought Dead. Vineland (1990; see WLT 65:1, p. 115), the last major sighting, showed signs of diminishment, a reliving of sixties paranoia, a more realistic Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Now, out of his famous silence, hoves a huge new novel, masterfully rendered in eighteenth-century rhetoric, down to the Nouns. It is nothing like Pynchon's previous novels, and, once again, long and difficult enough to raise the question of Gravity's Rainbow: "Is it all worth it?"

One of Pynchon's special skills, one he shares with Don DeLillo, is his ability to mimic or create jargon. Famous for techno-talk that sounds like what rock musicians, DJ's, World War II code experts, and fifty-seven varieties of true believers might say, the author brings his many voices to the eighteenth century, challenging the reader to learn a vocabulary of places, names, and nouns that are often delivered in abbreviated colloquialisms - "phiz," "obs." Leaving aside the question of whether that century would pare down language, American-style, one must admit that Pynchon does create a world through his language. One makes the effort, is rewarded with normally paced reading, until, inevitably, the density of contemporary reference (or seeming reference) calls either for secondary reading or - more typically - for a reading in which sections of a sentence are guessed at or ignored in an effort to keep the book going. This is not an unfamiliar experience for the Pynchon reader; one gets used to the idea that Implied Author knows more than you ever will. But this "wall" looms less often or differently in his previous novels; the basic language, after all, is familiar in those works. Mason & Dixon calls for some effort to read its basic language; small surprise if some readers feel taxed by the density of reference.

In my own case, I read past many more blanks in the first part, in the English, the shipboard, and non-American colonial scenes; once in America, during the prerevolutionary period, I was more assured that the other side of the "wall" of my ignorance was rare knowledge indeed. The technical intricacies of surveying the line, the fashions in wigs and hats, the aggressive behaviors of coffeehouse regulars could be accepted without too much checking; or, take it that I accepted their facticity as necessary for the author's America.

The business of the "wall," or the limits of one's knowing, creates a space for Pynchon's special brand of strangeness, of connections suggested or speculated that cannot absolutely be discounted. Was the famous Jenkins' Ear, cause of a "war," really exhibited in brine solution and spoken to by credulous (paying) tourists? Might not the endless cups of coffee, sweets too ready at hand, and clouds of tobacco smoke found in coffeehouses all have contributed chemically to the aggressive, disputatious, and ultimately revolutionary spirit of Philadelphia? Was there indeed a method (or system) of raising balloons with mirrors that enabled certain parties to send messages over great distances much faster than by any other means?

One enthusiastic reviewer found Mason & Dixon to be a real "page-turner," fascinating in its wealth of historical detail and characters, at their best when they stretch the credible; another saw entirely too much urge for significance, tending to turn action and characters into figures of allegory. My reading pushes me to a middle ground: Pynchon's characters are somewhat static voices who represent stances toward experience rather than creators of outcomes; but the wealth of action and scenes, the speculations on the meaning or design of it all, are so various, from so many perspectives, that a continuously signified allegorical level of reading is impossible. On the other hand, the episodic structure, the unrolling of the American countryside, and the encounters with pockets of humanity within it, by men who more or less take what they want and move on, all mark the novel as picaresque in important respects. So which will you have: The Surveyors' Progress, or Smollett with Ideas? Either way, the emphasis is on expansive discovery, not on excavating for cause.

One is reminded here of John Barth's two ventures into eighteenth-century fiction, the picaresque Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and the epistolary Letters (1982). Mason & Dixon shares some of the comic drive of Sot-Weed, but Barth is the more skillful weaver of plots; on the other hand, Pynchon has strength in the landscape of thought and speculation, the exchanges that achieve letter length. One hopes, however, that Pynchon does not go entirely epistolary in his next work.

W. M. Hagen Oklahoma Baptist University
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Author:Hagen, W.M.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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